Councillors storm out of meeting as row over dog exercise area in South Shields' Readhead Park continues

Opposition councillors walked out of a South Tyneside Council meeting in protest over a move they claimed was “unconstitutional” in delaying a decision on a funding application.

Opposition councillors walked out of a South Tyneside Council meeting in protest last week over an “unconstitutional” move to delay a decision on a funding application.

The row happened at a meeting of the Riverside Community Area Forum (CAF) on Tuesday, January 17, during a discussion on tabled local funding applications.

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One application included a bid for fencing and two self-close gates at Readhead Park, described as providing “improved identification of a local war memorial” with a cost estimate of £15,000.

Readhead Park.

Councillor Glenn Thompson, who proposed the application, said he thought reference to the war memorial was a “typo” and that the fencing would secure an area to be “predominantly used by dog owners and dogs”.

The independent Westoe councillor added that external funding already raised towards the project would be used for picnic tables, litter bins, dog waste bins and accessible tables within the fenced area.

In recent months, the proposed dog exercise area has been a controversial issue at the Riverside CAF, sparking rows between councillors and claims the plans are being politically blocked.

A petition was presented to full council on the issue last year, with funding also raised for the project by the Friends of Readhead Park and local community.

However the local authority has refused previous bids for the dog exercise area, due to its "scale" and "the impact this would have on the rest of the park and other users.”

Cllr Thompson, speaking at Riverside CAF last week, said the proposals came from residents’ requests and read out a legal statement from the council stating there was no “procedural obstacle” to the application being raised at the CAF.

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However the funding application prompted concerns from some Labour councillors, including Westoe member Cllr Ann Best, who said she wasn't aware of the proposal until it was tabled, as well as raising questions about cost estimates.

Cllr Anne Hetherington, of West Park ward, also queried the application description, noted the project had previously been declined and said that deciding projects on estimated costs seemed to be a “dangerous road to go down”.

Council officers said finalised costs were intended to be presented in time for the CAF meeting, but that this was not possible.

Councillor David Francis, Green Party councillor for Beacon and Bents, said there was no reason why the application could not be decided on cost estimates via a vote.

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However councillor Lynne Proudlock, Labour chair of the Riverside CAF, said the CAF would defer the application and “wait and get the estimates" back, referring to quotes being confirmed for the project.

The councillor told the meeting she was “not going to put this one through on the basis that it would open the floodgates and everybody would just put estimates through”.

Cllr Proudlock added the relevant cabinet member had already turned the dog exercise area proposals down and that the application was “just doing it another way”.

The deferral prompted an exodus of councillors from the council chamber, including independents for Westoe Cllr Paul Brenen and Cllr Glenn Thompson as well as Green Party councillors for Beacon and Bents, David Francis and Sarah McKeown.

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Cllr Francis, before leaving the meeting, said the proposals had come to the CAF multiple times without success “simply because of who is proposing it” and claimed the "meeting was being run unconstitutionally”.

In a social media post after the meeting, Cllr Francis added he was “not prepared to tolerate the will of one person being allowed to overrule a basic democratic process”.

Cllr Glenn Thompson, also speaking after the meeting, added “confidence has been lost in the chair of the Riverside CAF by the majority of its members”.

Councillor Andrew Guy, Green Party councillor for West Park, who remained in the CAF meeting, appealed for councillors to come to a "pragmatic" solution to the situation.

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This included further discussions around rules and procedures for future CAF meetings.

Cllr Guy added: “I can't ignore the fact that if residents in this ward want this thing [...] then they should get this, especially if it's allotted to their area to strengthen it.

"I would really encourage the members of Westoe to sit down and have a really pragmatic conversation as this keeps grinding this entire CAF to a halt”.

The funding application in question was listed under both the environmental capital scheme and local neighbourhood scheme, and was eligible for funding from both CAF funding pots.

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Operating procedures in South Tyneside Council's constitution set out procedures around the CAF environmental capital scheme.

The constitution states: “The CAF should receive an estimate of the cost of works and any risks or service implications arising as a result of the proposed works.

"The benefit to the wider community should be established beforea decision is sought by the CAF.

"Funding for a project and the reason for community benefit should be proposed by a member of the CAF and seconded by another member and agreement of the CAF sought by the chair.

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“In the case of a dissenting voice, a show of hands or a vote of all CAF members should be undertaken.

“The project will be agreed by a majority of members present at the CAF.”

South Tyneside Council have been approached for comment.